Nakanos share life, medical profession together

Doctors Jeffery and Sherry Nakano in their home.


It’s a quiet weekday afternoon at the Nakano home, but with two doctors in the house, it doesn’t stay quiet for long.

Jeff Nakano is on call, and the staff at St. Mary’s Hospital’s emergency room is well aware of the fact.

“Is someone there trying to reach me?” Jeff asks the person who answers at the ER after his pager has sounds again. He’s already put in a full day at his practice, but when he’s on call, the orthopedic surgeon is always within arm’s length of a cell phone.

His wife, Sherry, is a pediatrician. On this day, she is not as harried as her husband. But while he is tangled up in an issue that requires his attention, the couple’s home phone rings and she answers it. It’s for him. It’s a recruiter trying to lure him to a new town. Medical specialists are in high demand and such calls are common, the Nakanos say.

“I don’t usually answer it if I don’t recognize the number,” Sherry said. But while Jeff was tied up on his cell phone, “I thought it was one of those medical supply places trying to find you,” she tells him.
It’s just another day in the life for Sherry and Jeff Nakano. As busy as their lives are, the pace has slowed from the days when two young doctors had to strike a balance between their professional lives and trying to raise three small kids.

Those kids are all grown now. Michael is 27, Steven is 26 and Cami, a recent college graduate, is 23. After spending six chaotic months in Chile trying to teach kids who didn’t seem interested in learning English, Cami decided she is probably not going to be a schoolteacher. Her sights are now set on attending a new school next year, with an eye toward becoming a physical therapist.

Steven Nakano is also giving some thought to attending medical school, his father says. If his children follow their parents into the field of medicine, they will be following what is becoming a tradition in the Nakano family.

During Jeff’s childhood, his father, James, supervised a lab at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. His team’s mission was to eradicate smallpox, an infectious disease that killed and disfigured tens of millions of people around the world every year.

After a Somali man became ill in October 1977, James Nakano identified the viral culprit as smallpox. What James Nakano couldn’t have known at the time was that he had diagnosed the last naturally occurring case of the disease in the human population.

An international panel announced in 1979 that for the first time in human history, science had succeeded in wiping out a dreaded disease. For the large role he played in the effort, James Nakano was summoned to Washington, D.C., for a citation.

“He was such a humble man,” Sherry said of her father-in-law, who died in 1990. “He knew so much about smallpox and virology.”

Jeff’s mother still calls Atlanta home, as does his brother, who is a plastic surgeon. Nakano also has two cousins who are physicians, including one who is a pediatrician.

Medicine is a recurring theme in Jeff’s life, though he didn’t know until well into his college career which direction his life would take. He studied civil engineering and once got as far as four years into a five-year architecture program. The problem?

“I wasn’t any good at architecture,” he said.

Sherry knew at an early age that she wanted to be a pediatrician. She was the first person in her family to attend college, and she wasn’t sure how her family would feel about the idea.

“I was nervous to tell them I wanted to go to medical school,” she said. Her roots are blue-collar, and her family moved a lot when she was young. Her father followed welding work on pipeline projects and her family lived in 29 different cities, mostly in Texas, New Mexico and California.

But of all the places she’s lived, home will always be La Grande, Ore., where Jeff said Sherry was named Miss La Grande, the town she represented in the Miss Oregon Pageant. “You don’t have to write that,” she said and laughed.

La Grande is also where Sherry and Jeff were married in the spring of 1978.

“We met when she was an intern and I was a medical student” at Emory University in Atlanta, he said. “We started dating in April, got engaged in August and were married the next time we both had off, in March.”

Then the busy lives of two young doctors got even busier. Their two sons were born less than two years apart, and the couple tried hard to make sure mom and dad weren’t both on call at the same time. Then if one parent were called away, the other could stay home with the kids.

The Nakanos settled on making Grand Junction their home when they were expecting their first child. They wanted to be closer to her family in Farmington, N.M., Sherry said, but after living amid the lush Georgia landscape, they didn’t relish the idea of moving to the desert.

“But Grand Junction is irrigated and the desert is camouflaged,” Jeff said, smiling.

In 1983, the year he began his practice, the couple moved to the Grand Valley and have called it home ever since.

They like to travel, she said, but even when they are far from home, duty calls.

They’ve been to Panama three times as part of a charitable project called Operation Walk, in which surgical teams travel to different countries and perform hip and knee replacements for people who can’t afford expensive medical care. The Nakanos will be off on another such trip in April, this time to Guatemala.

Now that their children are grown, the Nakanos are no less busy. Sherry is sure Jeff spends more time at work than he used to. He agrees. As recently as six months ago, he would see an average of 50 patients a day, he said, but that number is closer to 40 now.

“It’s just gotten busier as our referral base has grown,” she said.

As if on cue, Jeff’s pager once again reminded him that he is a busy surgeon on call. It’s a good thing the Nakanos live close to the hospital. At least two patients needed him, and he had to leave.

“He has a very hard time telling people ‘no,’ ” Sherry said and smiled. “That’s why I love him.”


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